Salem Trials: Bewitching Questions

The voices behind the Salem witch trials have come alive, but they aren't meant to conjure up a Halloween haunting.

British author Frances Hill has written a book that provides a genuine historical perspective on the witch hunt by using first-person accounts from the infamous 17th century trials that led to the executions of 20 people and the imprisonment of hundreds of others.

Hill also discusses the fears of white settlers in the Massachusetts Bay colony that led to the trials, and she examines their impact on pop culture.

"The point of this book is that people can read all the texts for themselves and decide for themselves what the truth is," Hill said.

Hill is the latest of a string of authors to examine witchcraft and the famous New England trails. The list of books dates back to seventeenth century texts by Cotton and Increase Mather and includes perhaps the most famous of all - Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Written in the 1950s, Miller's fictionalized version of 1692 Salem events was meant as a response to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against supposed communist sympathizers.

Based on historical research, Hill's book relies heavily on the sermon notes of the Rev. Samuel Parris, who made the first allegations. Not once does Parris ever show any doubt or remorse about ruining entire families, Hill said.

The book modernizes the language in the writings of Parris and other first-person accounts, which are stored at local city archives and museums.

"What's important with these documents is that they really give you the voices of the people involved, and they make the events come alive," said Ben Ray, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and expert on the trials.

Hill writes that the trials were a turning point in the nation's history, making a "transition from Puritanism, with its values of community, simplicity and piety, to the new Yankee world of individualism, urbanity and freedom of conscience."

The trials, which spread to communities all over New England, did not happen in a vacuum, Hill said. Settlers brought with them the beliefs of old Europe, where people had been accused of being witches for centuries. Those supernatural beliefs were personified by the constant threat of American Indians, thought of as devils.

Perhaps the most powerful account in the book is the apology of Anne Putnam, one of the accusers, 12 years after the trials. At age 24, she went before her church congregation to "earnestly beg forgiveness."

Hill hopes the section of the book that examines the trials in popular culture will clarify myths, in particular, one popular one that the Parris family's slave, Tituba, was black.

The witchcraft scare began after Tituba told voodoo tales to young girls. The girls became excited and a physician said they were bewitched. Tituba was sentenced to death for witchcraft. Befor the hysteria ended a year later, 19 people were hanged and one person pressed to death.

Scholars have long known Tituba was an Indian - and considering the colonists' views of Indians, it was easy to make her a scapegoat, Hill says.

"The myth she was African was racist, and formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries," Hill said.

Ultimately, Hill said she wants readers to understand the "horror and injustice" of the trials.

"The way these trials were conducted was such that they were the most incredible travesty of justice to a most shocking degree," she said. "They were all presumed guilty before trial. They never had a chance."

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